Rigby and Highland. You know the drill. Two of the state’s best team will play for the 5A state title, 8:15 p.m. Friday at Holt Arena. Here’s what you need to know for the game.
RIGBY TROJANS (10-1)Coach: Armando Gonzalez (Fifth season)
State championships: 1
Last state championship: 2019
Points per game: 39.8
Points allowed per game: 17.5
WHAT DOES RIGBY NEED TO DO TO WIN?
1. GENERATE PRESSURE UP FRONT
The Trojans rarely have trouble in this department — linemen like Nic Fangupo and Damien Walker have really wrecked backfields this season — but that will be particularly important on Friday.
Cornerback Zxaeb Falevai and linebacker Logan Fredericksen have recently returned to game action following fairly serious injuries, so because they aren’t playing at 100%, the onus will be on the Rigby defensive line to cause havoc in the backfield. That way, playmakers like Falevai and Fredericksen don’t have to make more plays than they have to.
2. ESTABLISH A CONSISTENT GROUND ATTACK
“Easy” probably isn’t the right word for this, state championship game and all, but that’s the way Rigby made it look in these teams’ previous meeting. In that game, a 44-21 Rigby win back on Oct. 15, the Trojans gashed the Rams for 392 rushing yards, which came out to a staggering 11.5 yards per carry.
Running back Zheik Falevai registered 180 rushing yards and quarterback Tiger Adolpho added 162, which was pretty stunning considering the opponent. The Trojans have settled on a starting offensive line, which includes BYU commit Talin Togiai, and that bears particular importance ahead of this title game: Can Rigby control the line of scrimmage, at least on offense? If so, the Trojans will like their chances, especially because star receiver Taylor Freeman is out for the year with an arm injury.
3. CREATE A TURNOVER OR TWO
The thing about defending Highland’s offensive attack is this: Even if you force a fourth down at, say, the 35, you haven’t done your job — not entirely at least. That’s because the Rams employ star kicker Ian Hershey, who has connected from as far as 58 yards out, a state record. Hershey is a real, game-changing weapon. He’s proved it this postseason alone, using a walk-off 40-yard field goal to lift Highland into this title game.
So the Trojans can’t be content with third-down stops. If they’re backed up into their own territory, odds are Hershey is in range, so they’ll likely need to force turnovers to keep Highland off the board. They created three in the teams’ regular-season clash, which is a big reason why the Rams managed just 21 points.
THREE RIGBY PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. QB TIGER ADOLPHO
This pick might seem obvious, and it is, but not for all the same reasons that applied this season. For one, Adolpho has become a key cog in his team’s rushing game, including when Rigby and Highland met earlier this season, when he ripped off touchdown runs of 45 and 80 (!) yards. Even more important, in the Trojans’ playoff opener against Capital earlier this month, Adolpho lost his favorite target in Taylor Freeman, who broke his arm.
Adolpho and Rigby found ways to mitigate the loss in a triple-overtime win over Meridian last week, which may provide a look into the Trojans’ receiving reinforcements: tight end Con Dansie caught eight passes for 91 yards, Sam Kunz hauled in four for 44 yards and Coleman Lords snagged three for 26 yards. If Adolpho can become a force on the ground and connect with receivers not named Freeman, Rigby will be off to a strong start.
2. DB TREVON TALBOT
One of Rigby’s most experienced defenders is also one of its most important. In the Trojans’ win over Meridian last week, the senior tallied a team-best four tackles. Against Capital, he posted two, including one for loss. Talbot also snagged an interception in Rigby’s win over Highland earlier this season. So he’s a playmaker, to be sure, but he’s also quick to recognize routes and rushes, which becomes all the more critical against the Rams, especially considering a couple Trojan defenders won’t be playing at 100% health.
3. TE CON DANSIE
With Freeman out, Dansie becomes one of Rigby’s top receiving options. In all reality, that might not end up mattering a ton — Rigby racked up almost 400 rushing yards the last time these teams met, remember? — but if the Rams find ways to slow the Trojans’ ground game, Dansie will be a real weapon on offense. At times this season, Adolpho has used sneaky shovel passes to find Dansie. At others, he’s hit Dansie down field for huge gains. Either way, even as a blocker, Dansie may well feature prominently in Friday’s game.
HIGHLAND RAMS (10-2)
Coach: Gino Mariani (21st season)
State championships: 11
Last state championship: 2017
Points per game: 32.3
Points allowed per game: 16.0
WHAT DOES HIGHLAND NEED TO DO TO WIN?
1. LIMIT RIGBY QB TIGER ADOLPHO
Adolpho might be the best quarterback in the state. Highland can’t stop him. They know that — but they may be able to limit him. In the Rams’ and Trojans’ first meeting of the year, the Weber State commit threw just just over 100 yards but was lethal with his feet, taking off 13 times for 162 yards. What hurts Adolpho and Rigby’s offense is the injury to Taylor Freeman, the Trojans’ star receiver who was injured in the playoffs. Still, Adolpho is the cog that pushes Rigby forward. Restrain him and you restrain the Trojans.
“If he’s dropping back to pass, we’re obviously not going to open up and let him run — then that’s trouble,” Highland defensive end Kody Colvin said. “But on certain run plays, having him run up exactly the gap we want him to and have (linebacker) Mason Fuller hit the gap — I mean, everyone knows how hard he can hit gaps.”
2. CONTROL THE CLOCK
Highland can beat teams in different ways. That’s what makes the Rams so good. At times, they’ve let quarterback Jack Whitmer air it out to receivers Jaxon Shuman and Raimon Barela and Highland used chunk plays to move down the field. Other times, the Rams choose to be more methodical. They use Whitmer along with running backs Eli Parrish and Jackson Riddle as this three-headed monster in the backfield.
That was how Highland beat the Eagles. They ran the ball often. They controlled the clock. They kept the ball away from the Mustangs. With how productive Rigby’s offense has been this season (The Trojans are scoring almost 40 points a game), it’s imperative that Adolpho has the ball as little time as possible.
“It’s going to be a cat-and-mouse game,” Highland coach Gino Mariani said.
3. PROTECT QB JACK WHITMER
In the initial meeting between these two teams, Rigby’s front dominated — and it caused, perhaps, the worst offensive execution Highland had all season. The Rams hardly ran the ball over the century mark. It consistently was in poor down-and-distances. And Whitmer threw a season-worst three interceptions. Highland can’t win if it turns the ball over that many times — and keeping Whitmer safe in the pocket is the key to ensuring that.
Against Rocky Mountain — really the only team Highland has faced that compares to the size and physicality of Rigby — Whitmer only completed 10 passes for 87 yards while tossing an interception. The Rams had to come back from an 18-point halftime deficit and needed heroics from kicker Ian Hershey to edge out that win. They may not be able to garner the same result if that happens on Friday.
THREE HIGHLAND PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. K IAN HERSHEY
What more can be said about Hershey? Over the last few weeks, the senior hasn’t just transformed himself into the best kicker in Highland history, but possibly the best kicker the Gem State has ever seen. A week after breaking the state record with a 58-yard blast, Hershey knocked through a walk-off 40-yarder to beat Eagle in the semifinals. Hershey’s leg gives the Rams’ offense some peace of mind. When Highland crosses the 30-yard line, it basically has an automatic three points. No one team in the state can say that. If you’re looking for clear distinctions between Highland and Rigby, the Rams have a monumental edge on special teams.
2. THE HIGHLAND DEFENSIVE LINE
Is this a cop-out? Sure, but the Rams’ pass-rushers may as well be the Beatles. They’re really good on their own, but absolutely incredible as a unit. Break down their sacks and tackles beyond the numbers and you’ll notice the group has a symbiotic relationship. They set each other up for big plays — either because they draw a double team or open up a lane for a teammate.
Senior defensive linemen Kody Colvin, Sloan Lambson and Drew Roberts attack opposing quarterbacks with this fury of a wild pack of wolves prouncing on an injured antelope. On the season, that trio has combined for 40 tackles for loss, 26 sacks and a quartet of forced fumbles.
3. RB JACKSON RIDDLE
If you want an example how Highland has progressed since its 44-21 loss to Rigby in mid-October, look no further than Riddle. The sophomore running back transferred in from Utah at the beginning of the year, got hurt and spent most of the season on JV before getting pulled up against Rigby.
Last week against Eagle, no Highland player had more second-half carries than Riddle, who scurried for 88 yards in the final two periods, including gaining three-dozen yards on the Rams’ final drive alone. In other words, when crunch time hits on Friday, don’t be surprised if Highland keeps feeding its sophomore tailback.
- Jordan Kaye/Idaho State Journal